On Thursday Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant will host a virtual town hall to organize a nationwide May Day rent strike. At the town hall, which will stream at 6 p.m. on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitch, participants will "discuss strategy, and hear from tenants who are already organizing rent strikes and other actions," Sawant said in an email.
Organizers, including Rent Strike 2020 and Socialist Alternative, are striking to demand a statewide suspension of rent, mortgage, and utility payments, as well as a freeze on rent increases for the rest of the year. Sawant says over 9,000 Washingtonians have signed a petition in support of these proposals.
Nearly 500,000 Washingtonians have lost their job in the last month, with as many as 319,000 still waiting to access unemployment benefits. About one fifth of the country couldn't make a full or partial rent payment for April by the 12th. Trump's one-time $1,200 check may or may not help next month, but average rents in several Washington counties exceed the stimulus amount, and undocumented workers hit hardest by this crisis won't get them in the first place. Moreover, unemployment claims are expected to surge later this week when more people will be eligible to access the benefit. Plus, you know, there will arguably be more months after May.
Tenants who can't pay rent face mounting debt and eviction once governors lift moratoriums. Many in Seattle alone report anxiety, crippling uncertainty, and potential homelessness if lawmakers continue to pass only half-measures. Several report dealing with rent increases heading into May, too.
Private and public efforts to pay people's rent have fallen woefully short of the need. Three days after launching a new, limited rental assistance program for low-income tenants, for instance, the United Way of King County had to pause their application process after receiving thousands more applicants than they could serve.
Sawant said she recognizes organizing renters movements against corporate landlords with "huge cash reserves and ruthless attorneys" will not be easy, especially with "the political establishment and the courts on their side," but she maintains the movement is necessary and will require "solidarity among renters" across the country.
When calls for a rent strike started growing louder last month, tenant organizers and advocates cautioned against them. Typically tenants organize a rent strike in a specific building to elicit a specific demand from a specific landlord, and only after weeks of increasingly escalating actions. Striking is risky, given the limited legal resources available to tenants who can't pay due to emergencies and the zero legal resources available to those who just willingly withhold rent.
In this case, Sawant and other organizers are rallying renters to withhold their rent in order to pressure lawmakers to pass certain kinds of legislation, which is a direct demand but one that relies on well-oiled local, state, and federal governments, all of which are looking pretty rusty at the moment.
While the state legislature could convene a special session and lift the statewide ban on rent control or impose a statewide ban on rent increases, neither lawmakers nor the Governor can cancel rent or mortgage payments without amending federal and state constitutions. Passing such legislation anyway would lead to court battles states are likely to lose.
Sawant indicated that she's aware of the vulnerability to renters here, but is relying on safety in numbers. "Individual renters simply not paying rent is not a rent strike, and will make them vulnerable to eviction and other attacks from a system that overwhelmingly puts landlords interests over those of working people," she said. "If renters get organized and stand together, then the big banks, landlords, and courts will be hard-pressed to try to evict millions."
Creating a network of striking renters will also help prepare "at the neighborhood and building level for collective action to fight back against attempted evictions" later on in the process, Sawant added.
She also mentioned that chain restaurants "have already started their own rent strike of sorts," pointing to commie institutions such as Subway and the Cheesecake Factory, who have told their landlords they plan to withhold rent. "The Chambers of Commerce will no doubt sit down governors and mayors and insist on rent relief for these 'renters,'" Sawant said. "Working people should absolutely fight for their own rights as renters."
Sawant is also aware of the constitutional prohibitions against taking private property without compensation and against the government breaking private contracts, and she has "no doubt that the vicious corporate real estate lobby will go to the courts with the unconstitutionality claim."
Nevertheless, she believes building a nationwide movement is the only way to overcome those obstacles. "It is no coincidence that the majority conservative Supreme Court passed Roe v. Wade during the height of the women’s movement of the 1970s. Racist laws were long part of the backbone of US society until they were defeated by unrelenting civil rights struggles," she said.
Sawant argues that policies such as direct rent assistance, which could be enacted without a Supreme Court battle, are "not viable" by themselves absent taxes on big business to pay for them. "Equally importantly," she added, "Rental assistance at this moment on the basis of public funds would effectively be a bailout for the corporate landlords, one of the most rapacious sections of the capitalist class. We need to fight for a full suspension, without consequences, of rent payments for renters and mortgage payments for small landlords and homeowners. The banks, corporate landlords, and Wall Street need to pay for this crisis, not ordinary people."